Well, at least today we can claim that we know how the Kerrymen feel. Not really, of course, but we are entitled to assume some kind of kindred association with them now that we have, as they did two weeks ago up in Ballybofey, lost a league game to Donegal due to a last-gasp sucker goal. The one that sank Kerry was, of course, self-inflicted whereas we were undone today at McHale Park by a 25 yard daisy-cutter from Donegal’s corner back Eamon McGee but, before we start to make any claims as to the superiority of the manner of our losing, the fact that we failed to bolt the door on Donegal well before McGee’s strike and that we allowed them the chance to get the decisive score, were all of our own doing.
It was, of course, a game we should have won: we led right from the start till ten seconds from the end, we racked up sixteen points – most of them from play – and, for the most part, we put in a good, solid performance, albeit one that was far too loose in our own half. On the day, that looseness was to cost us the game and the two league points on offer as Donegal, who got most of their points from softish frees, nicked two goals that should never have been conceded. Goals will always win games, so the saying goes, and we got further proof of that old saw today at McHale Park.
We started brightly, so much so that we had two points (both from Mort) on the board before myself, PJ and two of his kids managed to get inside a bright but very cold McHale Park. There was a big enough crowd there today – I’d say there were around seven or eight thousand souls getting their posteriors frozen on the cold, hard concrete seating – with a decent enough number having made the trip down from Donegal for the occasion.
We didn’t have to wait long for more scores, with James Gill popping over this nice one from play, Mort converting this free, followed by another point from play. Donegal’s Colm McFadden, who was already taking young Cunniffe to the cleaners at the other end, then landed Donegal’s third of the day, following which Andy Moran opened his account for us. Then Alan Dillon swung over this free and soon after Keith Higgins cut through to bring our tally to eight points, with less than 20 minutes played.
A 14-yard free from Mort, after a foul on Austie, made it nine and then Dillon fired over from 25 yards out to make it ten. We looked good at this point but all wasn’t exactly rosy in the garden. Every time Donegal broke forward, they found their men with ease and our backline looked anything but comfortable. Cunniffe was having a nightmare – and was replaced after half an hour by Heaney – but, before he went off, his loose marking led to the foul that got Donegal their penalty. A goal here would have brought the visitors right back into it but Shane Nallen superbly parried away McFadden’s spot kick and soon after Austie made them regret this by landing a superb point from play at the other end.
We were now well on top but Donegal, suddenly grabbing control of midfield, dominated the final ten minutes of the half and set about reducing the deficit. BJ was now on McFadden (and did well on him all day, it should be pointed out) with Heaney, once more, called up for full-back duties. During this period of pressure, our backline held reasonably firm but we did cough up two soft frees, which were duly dispatched to leave the half-time score 0-11 to 0-7 in our favour.
Tom Parsons had come on for Seamus O’Shea seconds before half-time and when the sides came out for the second half, Aidan Kilcoyne was on for Austie. I thought Austie was slightly unlucky to be called ashore, as he’d done more than Mickey Mullins in the first half (all the latter did was show he could find the range for a 45 but saw this effort come back off the upright). Killer had a poor second half and bad judgment on his behalf right at the end enabled Donegal to launch that last, lethal attack.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We started the second half in the right kind of mood, with Keith Higgins charging through to knock over his second point of the day, opening up a five-point gap between the sides. It was soon down to two, however, as we got caught napping at the back, leaving Ryan Bradley with the simple job of palming the ball into the net for the day’s first green flag. The goal had come against the run of play but it proved crucial in keeping Donegal in touch at that juncture.
We responded well, with a free from Dillon after Mort had got poleaxed and then Mort himself landed a lovely point from play, in a move created by the generally excellent Gill. But Dillon then missed an eminently scoreable free and our looseness at the back was becoming more evident, with Donegal waltzing through for two simple points from play to cut the gap to two once more.
Gill gave us more breathing space with this well-taken effort but we needed it because Donegal once more had control around the middle and were far from beaten. They weren’t taking all their chances, however, failing to convert two 45s, the first of which was conceded by Liam O’Malley in quite comical fashion, when he twice tried and twice failed to pick the ball up as he scrambled back, eventually putting it out over his own end-line.
Dillon then landed a 20-yarder into the arms of their goalie and, soon after, Mort missed an easy free. Mort’s miss, it must be said, has to be chalked down as a very unusual occurrence – he’s usually ultra-reliable from that distance. Maybe it was because he was distracted by the arrival on the field of his big brother to finally replace the ineffective Mullins.
We didn’t think too much about these misses at the time but, had we got either, we’d almost certainly have won. Instead, McFadden converted another soft free for Donegal to cut the deficit back to two but, when Tom Parsons burst through to nail this fine point from play, the win looked to be in the bag once more.
The Herrin Gutters had not, however, read the script and in the overly-long injury time that followed, they proceeded to gut our hopes of victory. Chris Barrett was ordered off, apparently for a second yellow, and just after another McFadden free brought the deficit down to two points again, thus laying us open to the possibility of a last-minute Exocet.
But, as this final clip shows, it should never have happened. Killer was bursting forward but, instead of taking his time about finding one of the two Morts in close proximity, he launched an aimless ball that the Donegal goalie gathered and from which was launched the attack that led to their second goal. In those last frantic, chaotic seconds, Donegal landed two Hail Mary balls into the square, both of which we managed to scramble away but, crucially, we never managed to regain possession. Instead, Donegal got it a third time and this time they worked it intelligently across the field to Eamon McGee. The rest, as they say, is history.
Oh well, shit happens. I’d much prefer it to happen on a day like today than in high Summer and, while the defeat now makes the league campaign a battle to avoid relegation, at least we’ll have something tangible to fight for over the coming weeks. The manner of the loss is embarrassing, sure, but we can take some positives (though also a number of negatives) out of today’s performance.
Negatives first. We’re shockingly loose at the back. Cunniffe was destroyed in the first half, O’Malley was generally poor and Donegal weaved through our half-back line at their ease. BJ was clearly our best defender and, while I’m still not sure of the merits of playing him at full-back, I now must admit that, on today’s evidence, he looks as good as, if not better than, anyone else we have in the backs right now. Our problems in the back six – from whom opposing teams now know that soft goals are to be conceded cheaply in virtually every game – cannot be overstated: we’ll do nothing this year if we don’t start to get things sorted in the backs soon.
Midfield wasn’t much better. Peadar Gardiner, who got yellow-carded early on, was fairly subdued all afternoon and Seamus O’Shea never really got into it either but Tom Parsons, who replaced him, looked good in spots in the second half. We need Ronan back in there pronto.
The forwards were generally okay, with Mort, once more, demonstrating emphatically that he is the one man we cannot afford to drop from the front six. He scored six points today, three of them from play, and was our main offensive threat all afternoon. Gill was also excellent, though – he got two points from play but he also made a number of other scores with some fine intelligent passes. His efficient ball distribution was in stark contrast to Dillon’s often aimless use of the ball and, given this, I can’t see how Dillon can be considered as a serious centre-forward option.
Overall, I have to say that I’m not too downhearted by the outcome. For the middle of February, we played okay and the defeat will mean that further experimentation in team selection is bound to happen over the next few games. And, of course, the Ballina lads will be back before too long as well, which should help matters further. For now, though, we’re at the bottom of the pile in Division 1A, with Herrin Gutters, Herrin Chokers and their ilk lording it over us in the league table. Next up, we face Laois under the lights at O’Moore Park on the 1st of March, in a must-win bottom-of-the-table clash.
At least that one will be an easier drive back home for me than this evening’s three and a half hour’s tedious affair back to the capital was. But, still, I did come back with a carload of fuel and having given Minister Ryan another broadband connection in Mayo to boast about. As Meatloaf used to shriek all those years ago, two out of three ain’t bad. We still shouldn’t have conceded that bloody goal at the end, though!